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Tuesday, 4 June 2013

We don't need less lobbyists - we need more, from a wider cross-section of interests

I started lobbying in 2010 when I realised writing blogs and forum posts, whilst useful, had limited reach.

Since then I've spoken in Parliament, had face-to-face meetings with a government minister, been invited to drinks receptions and conferences inside the Palace of Westminster, and got close enough to power to have the vested interests lined up against me - and some lined up with me - close ranks to make it clear my participation was unwelcome.

There is a stench in Westminster, but the lobbyists are only part of the problem.

Lobbyists have the power they have, in some part at least, simply because they have bothered to build a relationship with those holding office.

Parliament is not a closed place. Excluding special events like the State Opening citizens can, on most days Parliament sits, enter the Palace and lobby for themselves.

All you need do is state your reason for attending at the entry gate, join the queue, navigate security and stick to the public areas.

Whilst there's usually a queue to watch the main chambers there are numerous groups and committees which  sit in public.  Some less formal meetings offer the public a chance to ask questions or mingle with the odd Lord or MP.

It helps to plan in advance so that you can explain on entry where you're heading.

But if you want to get your voice heard above the noise you face a string of problems.  After 2 years I ran out of cash - it takes a lot of time and effort to find your way around Westminster and keep track of what's going on and where.

One of the current problems with lobbying is that the lobbyists themselves control many of the groups meeting inside parliament.  They offer "secretariat services"  which usually includes general admin like sending out invites and providing a website - which the lobby group often ultimately controls(!) - and paying for drinks receptions to ensure the attendees are, well, refreshed.

Coming from outside the lobbying clique I had to build my own network to find out what went on, when, and where.

Although many sessions are "public", space is often limited.  Sometimes an invite is needed (although never checked), and turning up ahead of time is always essential to bag space in Parliament's cramped committee rooms.

But the lobbyists offering secretariat services sit at the heart of this information web.  As event organisers they are responsible for sending out the invite lists.  They even get a say over who writes what on the Parliamentary Group's website.

It's a delicate equilibrium - MPs themselves can't hope to organise such a wide and diverse range of discussion groups - known as All Party Parliamentary Groups - themselves.

There are hundreds of them (I haven't counted, a current list is here) - and it's reassuring to me at least that such a diverse range of interests get represented in Parliament.

Lobbyists fund and help run these groups, but in return they get a degree of control and influence.  It's not unbridled power, as MPs and Lords are ultimately left holding the reins - but it's a useful influence.

However it's an imperfect system which marginalises all but the most persistent and powerful voices and encourages the creation of Parliamentary groups which, occasionally, are less than useful.  In fact one could argue some groups serve just one aim - that of the lobbyists.

But I don't argue for radical overhaul - the system on the most part seems to result in vibrant debate with reasonable access to outsiders - which is why I argue that Government and Parliament should look instead at opening up access to a wider group of interested parties rather than focussing on clipping the lobbyists' wings.

One area that badly needs overhauling is access to Government ministries.

I noticed the same faces milling round Westminster and listed on minutes of meetings - minutes which I or other activists struggled to obtain through protracted Freedom of Information requests rather than being published by default.

Whilst a small guy like me occasionally slips the net, for the most part these Westminster Faces usually represent large commercial interests.

Smaller businesses are only usually represented through umbrella groups like the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).  But groups like the FSB have a lot of bases to cover with limited resources, so the interests of Britain's small and entrepreneurial businesses are rarely heard at the heart of Government - especially on niche issues such as internet regulation.

Ministries need to open up on two fronts: do more to listen to a wider range of voices, and be far more transparent on the meetings they do have - rather than attempt to keep contact with lobbyists under the radar.

But the really seedy side of Parliament that badly needs an overhaul is how the lobbyists themselves trade on their influence.

For example, many of the lobbyists offering secretariat services are given Parliamentary passes by a sponsor MP or Lord who usually chairs the Parliamentary group.

Such a pass to a lobbyist is gold dust - it's a badge of honour, a seal of approval.  The badge says these are the men and women (note: I met far more men than women) with access worth paying for.

These are also the people who I know to have organised banquets and dinners inside Parliament itself.

Invites go out to companies and other people the lobbyist wants to impress.

Where tickets are paid for I couldn't say who keeps any profit, but either way the lobbyist who is seen to organise a dinner inside the Palace of Westminster sits bright on the radar when a company is looking to get their voice heard in Parliament.

Again there is a balance to be struck - my first taste of Parliamentary cuisine was at an event organised by my former university.

I'm not necessarily saying that lobbyists are cash-hungry, power-crazed demons - I'm saying that their well-polished messages delivered on behalf of a narrow but wealthy section of society often reaches the ears of MPs at the expense of a louder but distributed voice from the rest of society.

Again the way to fix this is for more people to get involved to widen the debate and temper the power of the professional lobbyists.



  1. Although I agree in principle, in practice, those with most disposable cash i.e. corporations will have a huge advantage compared to community interest groups etc. I can't see how those affected and with valid points to make but with less cash & hence also time to dedicate, can be represented adequately. You don't seem to provide any suggestions as to how this could be overcome. Grants?

  2. Believe it or not I encountered several MPs going out of their way to canvas a more "honest" view than that coming from professional lobbyists, so I believe there are natural moderators at play tempering the power of hard cash.

    My only concern is that any attempt to level the playing field by restricting lobbyists could backfire - e.g. push the problem back behind the scenes, to meetings in high-backed leather chairs at select clubs.

    Whilst I'm sure the latter still goes on, for the most part at least the lobbying is out in the open. The challenge is to widen participation, not stifle the debate.

    1. It's no so much the cash itself but the time and exposure this can generate. The real problem is the 'availability error', the natural cognitive bias we have which makes us over consider information we have readily available to memory and discount that which is not readily retrieved by memory rapidly.

      The cash allows for certain selected information to repeated & hence encountered more often. This is why advertising and PR works, not because it makes sense, but by repetition in numerous contexts.

      Sure you will get some MPs that go out of their way to counter this in themselves but that requires time many do not have.

  3. Thanks John, interesting point.

  4. Is there scope then for someone like MySociety to build an open platform to provide similar 'secretariat' services, allowing interested groups of the general public to compete on a more equal footing with the professional lobbyists? It seems like running a website for Parliamentary events and sending out and managing invites to those events would be more than doable without the resources of commercial backers.


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